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Between a rock and a hard place: How music is changing lives of Tihar’s inmates

Eight prisoners in Delhi’s Tihar Jail have formed a rock band called The Rockers. Serving time for crimes such as murder, robbery and snatching, they met inside jail and have become a rage among other inmates over the last six months

delhi Updated: Dec 25, 2017 10:54 IST
Prawesh Lama
Prawesh Lama
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Tihar Jail,Tihar jail band,New Delhi
The Rockers are a motley mix of inmates at Tihar, India’s largest jail.

Inside India’s largest jail, where some of the country’s most dreaded criminals are lodged, where gangs are forged and gang wars are fought; a group of eight prisoners is having a ‘rocking’ time. Quite literally.

Music in their blood, these eight men have formed a rock band. The Rockers – they proudly call themselves – is the first rock band of Tihar.

Every morning at seven, when the locks open, the eight men lodged in different cells of jail no. 1 walk towards the music and dance academy room – a cemented building with no windows, surrounded by barbed wires.

An armed guard atop a tall tower watches the building and other prisoners outside the barracks. Inside the music room, one cleans the floor, the other wipes the dust off the drums and the keyboard; the third connects the old Gibson electric guitar to the amplifier. After the cleaning is over, drummer Mohit Paul rolls the drums.

The Rockers begin their day. Almost like a scene from the recently released movie Lucknow Central, an inspiring story about a prison band.

The Rockers’ story is no less inspiring.

Serving prison time for crimes such as murder, robbery and snatching, the band members met inside jail -- each with a talent but unknown to the other because they were in different jails.

In June, they came together. Six months ago, the jail authorities decided to make jail no. 1 a music hub. It would be the place where prisoners would practice, spend their time playing music and train others.

It was the place where The Rockers was born.

The life they left outside the barbed wires helped them build the band. One of the founding members, Rishabh Chauhan, 35, in jail for over nine years, owned a recording studio. “I was always interested in music but I never imagined we would build a band here within these walls.”

Chauhan found Sunny Malik, 30, the son of a music teacher who would be the band’s lead guitarist and singer. Malik played at shows inside the prison during festivals or on festive events such as Independence Day and Republic Day. “We were all playing alone and in different jails. I think it is fate that we came together.”

The band has become a rage among prisoners over the last six months. Drummer Paul, who is also a trained RJ, says they play live music for prisoners on the jail’s own radio channel, Tihar FM. Run by prisoners, Tihar FM is the jail’s in-house radio channel where prisoners request songs that can be heard across the 400-acre prison complex. Celebrity radio jockeys (RJ) visit the prison regularly and train the prisoner’s RJs.

Though the band prefers to sing Hindi songs, they had to learn English numbers for prisoners from abroad – there are around 300 foreign nationals inside Tihar. Drummer Paul says Malik had to learn Hero by Enrique Iglesias because many Nigerian friends lodged at the prison requested that song.

Malik, a school dropout jailed seven years ago, says it took him months to learn the English song. “I have many Nigerian friends here. I wrote the lyrics of ‘Hero’ in Hindi. I wrote the words the way they were pronounced in English. For days, I mugged the lyrics. I may not understand the lyrics but I sing the song perfectly. When I played this on our radio, our friends loved it,” Malik says, with the fingers of his left hand making a G major chord on the guitar and his right hand strumming the strings.

“Hero starts with a G chord. Oh yes, I also play Akon. They love his songs,” he tells us.

Malik not just plays the guitar, he has also chosen to study. He had failed class 8 when he came to prison seven years ago. “I am a Bachelor of Arts today,” he says. He graduated from Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) earlier this year. For prisoners who opt to pursue their education, examinations are held inside the prison library by IGNOU every year.

Jail officials say music and other skill development courses and activities are ways to rehabilitate prisoners. It also has a recreational value. Every jail has a stock of musical instruments, where prisoners come and play in their free time.

Some of the band members are accused of murder. Another is in for snatching and cheating. They hesitate to talk about their cases. Either they say they were framed or blame it on the ‘circumstances.’

Jail no. 1’s superintendent, Subhash Chander, says, “Music brings positivity inside these walls. My seniors guide me to encourage these prisoners. We are only their guardians here while they are on trial.”

Chauhan, who plays the electric drum, says their day begins at 7. It starts with an hour of riyaaz (practice). After breakfast at 8, the men return to the room again for a jam session. While they rock, curious prisoners queue outside the room and watch them. Singers Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Arijit Singh are favourites among the inmates.

The men hope they can earn a living out of their passion when they leave the prison. The movie Lucknow Central has certainly inspired them.

Another prisoner, Sumit Sharma, 27, an auto-driver, is the band’s new dancer. Sharma’s moves make the jam session more fun. At a recent government function on rehabilitation of prisoners, Sharma’s dance and the band’s songs were appreciated by Delhi’s deputy chief minister and top prison officials. Sharma is learning the guitar. “You will not understand the boredom behind these walls. You have nothing to do but to stare at the walls and think about the past and the choices you made to land here. I could either choose the rehabilitation activities the prison offers or go rogue. I choose this.”

The court hearings often come in the way of practice. Because most of the band members are undergoing trial, they have to visit courts regularly. Court visits mean a day’s loss of practice. But Malik says they have found a solution. “We have been training prisoners so we have a decent backup. We have three guitarists now. There are many singers too. We conduct auditions too. Many prisoner-students come to learn music. We started as a three-member band and now have eight active members.”

They hope to earn a living out of their passion when they leave the prison. Lucknow Central has certainly inspired them. “We are more than just prisoners. There is something good in us. We are here due to circumstances on which we had no control. We want to show the society we are doing something good in jail. We play, we jam-up and we teach other prisoners. If only the government organises an inter-jail music competition, which has never happened, we know we will win,” Surender Singh, the lead singer and a congo player says.

In between their jam sessions, the men find time to discuss their court dates and the cases. They talk about hope and the day when they will all be released from prison. They talk about playing in bars and in front of crowds outside the prison walls someday.

Sajid Ali, 25, the band’s lead singer, sheepishly says he dreams about the band participating in a television reality show and proudly telling the judges that they had all met in prison and formed a band behind the walls.

But will they be together outside once they leave the prison?

Chauhan says, “The band was born here in the worst of times. We stuck here together. Our best is yet to come. We will definitely meet.”

First Published: Dec 24, 2017 07:45 IST